ATLANTA This week's Tour Championship, not to mention this year's FedEx Cup, pretty much comes down to this: Tiger Woods vs. 29 underdogs.
That's a testament to Tiger's unparalleled ability, not a slight to the other players. It is interesting that the top two players in the rejiggered FedEx Cup points standings are Tiger and Steve Stricker, who also happen to be No. 1 and No. 2 on another list that we give a little more credence to the Official World Golf Ranking. Though Stricker will be seen as an underdog this week, he's certainly no fluke. He won three times this year and established himself as the second-best American player, replacing Phil Mickelson, who endured a year of family adversity.
This is why Woods is the overwhelming favorite to win at East Lake, or any place he plays: He leads the Tour in scoring average by a whopping margin. He averaged 68.06. Stricker is second at 69.32. Jim Furyk is third at 69.56, and David Toms and Zach Johnson are just behind him. Woods is averaging 1.25 strokes lower per round than anyone else. That's five shots in a four-round tournament. And this in a year when critics have barked about Tiger not playing up to his usual standards, not winning a major and maybe not totally recovering from knee surgery last year (despite those six victories and his No. 1 FedEx rank).
The reality is this: Tiger Woods had an outstanding year. He is two victories short of tying Jack Nicklaus for second place on the Tour's all-time list at 73, an incredible number. So he didn't win a major championship? Six wins in any year is impressive; after knee surgery, it's amazing. He's outdistanced his opponents by five shots per event despite limiting his schedule to the tougher, higher-scoring tournaments.
"It's been one of my most consistent seasons," Woods said Wednesday, repeating a line that has almost become his mantra in the last month. "To have this many high finishes, I think it's pretty good. Excluding match play, I had two finishes outside the top 10 in stroke play and one of them was an 11th. I think that's a pretty good season."
Woods is clearly the favorite to win the FedEx Cup, even though the reformulated points system will make him work for it. But this has been the Year of the Spoiler so far. Angel Cabrera, not Kenny Perry, at the Masters. Lucas Glover, not Phil Mickelson or David Duval, at the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink, not Tom Watson, at the British Open. Y.E. Yang, not Tiger, at the PGA. It even extended into the playoffs, with Heath Slocum edging Tiger, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Stricker at Liberty National. If there were ever a year set up for an unexpected FedEx Cup champion at East Lake, this is it.
Slocum, who is fifth in points, is in good position to fill that role. So is Jason Dufner, who ranks 10th. Who would be a better Cinderella story in the Year of the Spoiler than a guy named Dufner? All Dufner has to do is win, and have Woods finish fifth or worse; Stricker finish fourth or worse; and Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson finish third or worse.
The new format heavily favors the top five players a win by any of them in Atlanta will secure the Cup. That's why Stricker shouldn't be overlooked. Getting paired with Tiger is starting to be old hat for him. (He and Tiger will tee it up together on Thursday as the top-ranked players.) Stricker has experience. He won the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs, on a course better suited to power players. And he isn't going to be in awe of the prize money.
He lives a pretty simple life in Madison, Wis., where he likes to spend time with his family, and his favorite hobbies are hunting and fishing. Stricker already has more money than he's going to spend in two lifetimes, so the possibility of standing over an $11.135 million putt on the 18th green on Sunday won't faze him. (The Tour Championship will pay $1.135 million; the FedEx Cup $10 million.) On Wednesday, he said he hadn't even thought about that possibility until a Golf Channel interviewer asked him about it.
"I'm sure you'd be just as nervous over a putt to win a tournament for a million dollars compared to $11 million," he said. "The nerves are going to be shot, anyway. It's unbelievable to play for this type of money. There's a lot of anticipation and excitement for that reason, that somebody could come down to the last few holes to play for that sort of money. That's what they wanted, I think."
As for worrying about the money, Stricker joked, "I don't really pay attention to that until I'm reading it in the paper the next day and see how much I either missed or made on that last hole. You can wear yourself out thinking about stuff like that."
Woods said he has never considered what was riding on a putt or any shot at the end of the tournament. "Even my rookie season, you just looked at trying to beat everybody in the field," he said. "You play as hard as you can. Inside the ropes, you look at, where do I place the ball to beat these guys? Winning always takes care of itself."
Let's face it, $10 million isn't going to change either of their lives. For Woods, it's just a little more than pocket change.
Playing conditions may be a factor, but perhaps less than was expected. The Atlanta area got pounded by 12 inches of rain in the last week, and some parts of Georgia suffered from severe flooding. In fact, I saw a traffic update sign this morning as I approached downtown Atlanta that said West-bound I-20, toward Birmingham, was still closed due to flooding.
Woods played nine holes Wednesday morning the back nine because he wasn't here last year to see the changes made to the 17th hole. He reported that the fairways were soft and that balls were picking up mud, but he said the greens, which feature sophisticated underground pumps, are already firm and in excellent shape. There hasn't been a decision announced yet as to whether the field will be allowed to play lift, clean and place.
"The greens are pretty impressive; they're rolling out," Woods said.
Stricker agreed, saying, "I played nine holes yesterday and it was surprisingly dry. I came here with the expectation of puddles everywhere, super soft greens, and it's far from that. It's in unbelievable shape for the rain they've gotten. As far as being a good mudder, you don't have to be this week unless we get a lot more rain."
The weather forecast is unsettled. More rain is possible. The only thing that's certain is that going into the final week of the FedEx Cup, a lot of players can still win it. That's a plus.
Asked what winning it again would mean, Woods answered, "It would mean that I've had a very consistent year and I played well at the end, because you have to do that."